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In Memoriam

Writing an in memoriam for someone I never quite met should be an interesting challenge indeed.

My acquaintance with Glenna Plaisted began with an email telling me she liked my book In Defense of Childhood so much that she bought copies for the staff of her school and insisted that they read it. Then she asked if I would be willing to spend a day at the school, which I wasn’t familiar with, and lead a faculty workshop after the kids went home.

When I surfed the Riley School’s website to find out more about it, I immediately liked what I saw. There was an opening quote from Piaget about the importance of education being to learn how to learn, so that our development continues far beyond school. I also loved the school’s small size—80 students ages 4-14, and its location—25 acres of fields and forest on the Maine coast where they do things like make maple syrup and learn about salt water marshes by tramping around in them all day.

I decided to accept the invitation, and soon to follow were two memorable phone calls. It’s a supreme pleasure to speak with someone well into her 80s (I’d had no idea) who is still fully engaged in her mission and living every day to the max. Not one for small talk, Glenna said she wanted me to work with her teachers because of what I had to say about adult over-management being one of childhood’s worst enemies. “Children don’t need to be bossed around and told what to do,” she told me. “They need the freedom to make mistakes and figure things out on their own.” We discussed the importance of learning from experience; and also of play, taking risks, and being out in the natural world. It felt like I was talking to a female A.S. Neill.

The second conversation, to firm up the arrangements for my visit, was more about what wasn’t said. Glenna clearly understood children as deeply as anyone I’ve ever known, and our beliefs about education seemed totally in synch. Since we were mostly finishing each other’s sentences, what was there really to talk about? I hung up with the delicious anticipation of meeting Glenna in person.

Next Glenna sent me a copy of the book about the school that she and a team of teachers, parents, and students past and present had recently written. It begins with Glenna’s telling of how and why she started the school in 1972. Not surprisingly, this earnest, pipe-smoking woman who rode horses at age three and competed in high-level tennis as an adolescent didn’t last too long teaching in conventional schools. The arbitrariness, authoritarian methods, and lack of passion were maddening; and so in 1967, while in her last job at a public high school in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Glenna and four other rebels hatched a plan to start their own school.

As these things so often go, the group miraculously found a farmhouse for sale with a barn, several guest cabins, and a small lake on 150 acres in southern Maine. The departing owner liked the idea of a school starting up there so much that she lowered the price all the way down to $25,000. The next miracle consisted of a bank granting a mortgage to the group despite its utter lack of resources.

Glenna supported herself the following year by giving horseback riding lessons, and she and the others spent their spare time slowly transforming the old farmstead into a small residential school that they intended to run on Summerhillian principles. With no money to hire anyone, they did all the work themselves. The process was daunting at times, but whenever Glenna felt doubt creeping in she would reread the letter she had gotten back from A.S. Neill. “Get on with it, and the hell with the difficulties,” he said in his inimitable style.

Pinehenge School opened its doors in September, 1968. The school was an immediate success, but in the spring of ’72 Glenna left Pinehenge—she doesn’t reveal why in her book—to start a new school 100 miles to the east. This time she found a rambling old house on the coast; and again she managed without collateral to convince a bank to finance her made-up-out-of-whole-cloth experiment in education. Or as she preferred to say, “adventure.”

Glenna’s choice for the school’s name betrays her understated sense of humor and also gives you her educational philosophy in a nutshell. She cadged it from the popular 1950s comedy The Life of Riley, whose title, in turn, comes from an old Gaelic saying about living life joyfully and contentedly. Then if you want her bottom line on teaching and learning, you can watch the Youtube video of her being interviewed by what looks to be a 12-year-old Riley student (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CTkC4beYW9w), in which Glenna says the key ingredient of the educational process is unconditional love and the primary aim is to help children discover the inner power that will enable them to realize their full potential.

Or quoting Glenna from the ten-minute clip, “Learning should be fun. … I don’t know what all this control is about, and why people are so afraid of kids. Kids are fine. It’s the adults who create the problems.”

Another philosophical gem is embedded in the only story Glenna shares in her book to describe the early goings on at Riley. It’s about seven-year-old Kevin, who was one of a handful of boarding students Glenna accepted to help pay the bills. One night Glenna took the boy to a piano performance at the local high school and on the way back he told her he wanted to learn how to play. But when she called Kevin’s mother about it, the mom said they had already paid for him to take lessons and he refused to practice. No way were they going to try it again.

Glenna’s response: “Things change; people change.”

With Glenna’s assurance that it would be the end of it if Kevin didn’t practice this time, his mom relented. Glenna promised Kevin never to mention the word practice. “I’m not even going to ask you about the piano,” she added. “It’s entirely up to you.”

Glenna, ignoring the missing keys on the school’s old upright, found a teacher for Kevin. He started practicing every day, and after a couple of years became such an accomplished pianist that Glenna went out and bought a baby grand for him and the others to play.

Last week I received a third call from Riley, this time from the school’s longtime secretary. Somehow I sensed what was coming: Glenna had died the previous week, suddenly and quite unexpectedly. “She would’ve wanted you to know,” the secretary said after breaking the sad news. It was less than two months before I would get to meet Glenna.

What a loss to education, unbeknownst to so many of us because Glenna Plaisted did her thing in a corner of the nation not very often heard from as far as educational change is concerned. And also because she was a person of action much more than words, not one to draw attention to herself. But the whole world should know about her important contribution, one that warrants her a place in the long line of extraordinary women who recognized how injurious conventional schooling is to children’s minds and souls; and who had the courage, as Albany Free School founder Mary Leue so aptly put it, to “challenge the giant.” I also include on that list Maria Montessori and Sylvia Ashton-Warner, who should need no introduction; Marietta Johnson, founder of the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education; Elizabeth Ferm and Nellie Dick, two leaders of the Modern School movement; Phyllis Fleishman, founder of Play Mountain Place; Mabel Dennison, founder of the First Street School; Pat Montgomery, founder of Clonlara School and leading home education activist; Sandra Hurst, founder of Upattinas School; Deborah Meier, founder of the Central Park East School and leader of the small schools movement—to name only a few.

Via con dios, Glenna. Your work on earth is done.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Maybe there’s a place – somewhere out there that we don’t yet know – where our spirits will get to play together too. Thank you,Chris, for the introduction to this person and her place in our world. Wish I had known her. (and thanks for the compliment -I am humbled when mentioned in that group.)
    Sandy Hurst

    November 2, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      No need to be humbled, Sandy. The honor is hard-earned.

      November 9, 2013
  2. Beautiful.

    November 4, 2013

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